“In these hills there are probably hundreds of graves. In Mexico there are thousands.”
These are the words of Claro Raúl Canaán, two of whose sons went missing in 2008. The massacre of 43 student teachers after they were attacked and arrested by municipal police in the ironically named city of Iguala de la Independencia on 26 September 2014 momentarily shifted world attention from Syria, Sierra Leone, and the Ukraine to the horror of Mexico’s drug violence – and the official corruption that allows much of it to happen.
Terrible as the circumstances are, they have served to expose the running sore of Mexico’s many other “disappeared”. In the drug-fuelled violence of recent years, some 20,000 people have vanished. Relatives of the missing have largely remained silent for fear of retribution, but now many have united to denounce the terror imposed by criminal gangs – often in blatant collusion with state authorities.
Mexico is a nation of more than 112 million, 50% of whom live in poverty. The present political crisis has been exacerbated by failures in education, health care, housing, and employment. Against this background, there is fury over a $7 million mansion built for the presidential family, although it pales into relative insignificance besides the murder of the students and the disappearance of thousands of others. These two apparently unrelated issues have confirmed once again that political corruption is the underlying cause of the country’s many problems – including the breakdown of law and order that has left parts of the country at the non-existent mercy of murderous drug cartels.
For more than 14 years, Mexico has suffered violence, with impunity for criminals protected by local and national government officials. Under a political system created during more than 70 years in power by the PRI (the political party of President Peña Nieto), the cartels have become more powerful than ever and have increasingly penetrated the institutions of the State. Under Peña Nieto’s administration, law enforcement has disintegrated and whatever he does now will be too little, too late.
When the PRI began to lose its dominance in the late 1990s, Mexico imagined a better, more egalitarian, peaceful future. Decades of conservative government and institutionalised corruption would be erased by the “Mexican moment”, created with the help of a massive campaign of public relations and aided by massaged statistics claiming a reduction in violence and reforms that proved illusionary. That dream has been shattered.
September 2014 revealed the true face of the “Mexican moment”. Three students from a rural teachers’ college in Ayotzinapa were murdered and another 43 from Iguala “disappeared”. It is symbolic of the widespread collusion with organised crime at all levels. The total failure of President Peña Nieto to guarantee peace, rule of law, and justice, each one vital to the existence of a viable State, is the end of his aspirations to change the face of Mexico. And belatedly announcing plans to overhaul the country’s municipal police forces merely shifts the focus away from the real problem: the stranglehold that the drug cartels have over Mexican society.
Elected in 2012 for a six-year term (a legacy of the Revolution is that presidents can only serve one term) he is likely to survive until 2018. But will Mexico? In such a context, real change can only come from people taking responsibility into their own hands and seizing the moment to bring about structural reform from the bottom up and a transformation of Mexico’s political culture.
In El laberinto de la soledad (1950), the Mexican writer and diplomat Octavio Paz sounded the country’s sense of identity in the aftermath of colonialism and the achievements and failures of the 1910 Revolution. He said that without critical reflection and the possibility of peaceful struggle against those in power, every revolution is fraudulent. In a postscript added in 1969 he wrote:
“We have to break today’s monopolies – whether they are those of the State, the political parties or private capital – and find new and genuinely effective forms of democratic and popular control the same for political and economic power as for education and the media. A pluralistic society, without majorities and minorities: in my political Utopia we are not all happy, but, at least, we are all responsible.”